Road to the 2017 Playoffs: Atlanta Hawks

Enzo Flojo
Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap, center, celebrates with guard Dennis Schroder, left, of Germany, and forward Mike Muscala as time runs out in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

43-39, #5 in the East, second in the Southeast Division

Key transactions: 

The Atlanta Hawks dramatically reshaped their roster during the offseason, beginning with when Al Horford signed with conference rival the Boston Celtics, and they replaced him with Dwight Howard. While they essentially swapped one All-Star big man for another, the hope of the team was that Howard could rediscover his superstar potential after a miserable last season in Houston, and be the natural center Horford never really was. On paper, this should have been a more ideal pairing with perennially productive power forward Paul Millsap. 

The team continued their revamp with a three-team deal involving the Indiana Pacers and the Utah Jazz. Atlanta’s part of the trade saw them send out veteran point guard Jeff Teague, and get back rookie swingman Taurean Prince, allowing Dennis Schroder to become their full-time floor general, a transition they sealed by giving him a new contract. It wasn’t all exits though, as the team opted to ink Kent Bazemore to a rich deal too. 

In January, the Hawks seemingly signaled that they were abandoning their postseason ambitions with a trade that shipped out marksman Kyle Korver to their postseason nemesis, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in exchange for Mike Dunleavy Jr., Mo Williams, and a 2019 first round pick. By the trade deadline however, the teardown never materialized. The only other moves they made were dealing injured center Tiago Splitter to Philadelphia for stretch-four Ersan Ilysaova, and then claiming Jose Calderon off waivers. 

Top performers: 

Paul Millsap - 18.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.9 bpg
Dennis Schroder - 17.9 ppg (34.0% 3FG), 3.1 rpg, 6.3 apg, 0.9 spg
Dwight Howard    - 13.5 ppg (63.3% FG), 12.7 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.2 bpg
Tim Hardaway Jr. - 14.5 ppg (35.7% 3FG), 2.8 rpg, 2.3 apg
Kent Bazemore - 11.0 ppg (34.6% 3FG), 3.2 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.3 spg

Ersan Ilyasova - 10.4 ppg (34.8% 3FG), 5.8 rpg
Thabo Sefolosha - 7.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.5 spg
Mike Muscala - 6.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.4 apg

Key injuries: 

- Coach Mike Budenholzer decided to rest many of his main guys to end the season, and that may prove to be wise, especially since a couple of his key players sustained some injuries in mid-March, most notably Millsap and Bazemore. Millsap had a left knee injury last month, while Bazemore had a bruised right knee, and it'll be interesting to see if any lingering effects will affect their play in the postseason.

Key stats:

- They may not have the dynamic passing of a few seasons ago, but the Hawks are still sixth in AST% (62.1%). They’re also a pretty speedy team, with a pace of 99.83, good for #10. Adding Dwight Howard though has had an effect on their free throw shooting stats however. They’re tied for fourth in FTA rate, at 0.295, but they’re all the way down at 72.8% as team in FT percentage, #28 out of 30 teams. Can you say "hack-a"? 

Defensively, Atlanta has been perhaps better, finishing fourth overall in terms of DRTG, surrendering 103.1 points per 100 possessions, a by-product of being the #2 team in points in the paint allowed (just 39.1 per game). They'll need every bit of their defensive intensity and efficiency if they'll limit the Washington Wizards in their first round affair.

Storylines:

It has been a bit of an up-and-down season for the new-look Hawks, whose starting unit has been practically depleted of the stars who led them to the East's best record just two seasons ago. No more Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, and, of course, DeMarre Carroll, who left after that memorable 2014-2015 campaign. Understandably, the 2016-2017 Hawks have struggled a bit with young gun Dennis Schroder as their playmaker on the court. The German rising star has had flashes of brilliance, sure, but there are also things he needs to polish if he is to become the elite point guard ATL fans hope he is.

It was good, though, that the enigmatic Dwight Howard returned home and, for the 13th straight season, put up double-double numbers. It's crystal clear that he will probably never return to the version of himself that made people wonder if he was the best player on the planet in 2009, but at least he gives the Hawks an ultra-solid presence in the paint who can clean up the garbage, gobble up the boards, and protect the rim while Paul Millsap does most of the damage. 

Speaking of Millsap, the Hawks are surely glad he's still in town after persistent rumors that he'd be shipped elsewhere. He hasn't been jaw-droppingly productive, but he has been a great complement to Howard up front, covering for the latter's offensive deficiencies. Wingmen Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway, Jr. have been quite impressive, too. They aren't really showstoppers by any measure, but they can give Bradley Beal and maybe even John Wall fits in the first round. Hardaway, in particular, has benefitted from Korver's departure, as the former upped his scoring from around 13 per game pre-All-Star to nearly 18 points per outing in the second half of the season. Watch out for him because he could be a breakout player in the Playoffs and possibly for next season, too.

Atlanta won't be favorites to get past Washington and certainly not to win the conference, but they've shone these last couple of weeks, as proven by wins over the East's top teams, Boston and Cleveland. Securing their 10th straight playoff ticket is also a testament to how well-run this franchise is. That says a lot for a club that seemed all but ready to blow their own team up and sink into rebuilding mode at different points in the season. 

Right now, the Hawks look ready and healthy, and that should give the Wiz a lot to think about. They still sometimes settle for too many jumpers, but as long as they are aggressive on both ends, they should be in a position to contest each game’s outcome late.

Fun fact: Their tenth straight playoff entry actually gives the Hawks the longest active postseason streak in the Eastern Conference (2008-2017), and the second-longest in the NBA behind the San Antonio Spurs, who have made the playoffs each season since 1998.

(Stats current as of end of regular season)

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